Is it a good thing or a bad thing for someone who reviews restaurants to really, really like eating? You would think it’s a silly question, but when you think about it, passion is really no indicator of ability; it’s one thing to love food, another to be discerning. I’m definitely in the first category, but whether I’m in the second is probably more for you lot to decide. (My sincere gratitude goes out to all of you.)
Now, the friend who recommended Pasta Brava to me is the exact opposite. She’s generally chill and sharp and a little picky, but I never really got the sense that she likes to eat. And that is precisely why her word carries weight with me – while I talk about food all the time, it’s not every day she comes at me on Facebook going PASTA in all-caps. If she’s impressed, I conclude, they must be doing something right.
There are other signs of that right-doingness, of course. Popularity is one – it took a week and a half to secure a dinner reservation for two – and longevity is another. They’ve been in this spacious shophouse since 1993, long before the Pinnacles existed and nearby Tanjong Pagar Road became a river of jjigae dotted with islands of bibimbap. Rolando Luceri, the owner who also works the front of house, brings with him a further four decades of experience as a hotelier and restaurant manager.
And this experience and steadiness definitely shows in the place’s atmosphere. The lighting is carefully arranged, accentuating the tables, subtle around the rest of the space; it makes the tables, which are actually quite close together, feel a lot more private. Furnishings from around the world – Straits Chinese window frames and counter, a silver mirror with an inlaid peacock (Indian? Persian) – share wall space with rows of awards. Yet at the same time you are given coloured chalk, for doodling on the table covers; good drawings get to go on the wall too. It’s an antidote to the minimalist style so prevalent now, proof that with proper arrangement, lots of decor need not mean clutter.
The menu sticks to the Italian way of dividing up a meal into courses, of which pasta is just one; there are primi and secondi piatti, and a wide range of antipasti. The carpaccio di tonno is a good wake-up to the appetite, balsamic vinegar teasing out the sweetness in the cold, yielding slices of tuna; the complimentary basket of bread is a little on the dry side, so it was a good thing we had olive-lubricated tuna to take with it.
The sformato di melanzane, on the other hand, left something to be desired. It’s not a problem with the execution. Two thick slices of eggplant sandwich a filling that stretches as proper mozzarella does; baked into a nice, mildly smoky pulp, it sets the scene well for its stronger counterparts – whiffy parmesan and a savoury, civil tomato sauce. But the flavours don’t seem to mesh, for some reason; even with several savoury ingredients, it still feels like it could do with more umami to round itself out. The arugula leaves do provide contrasting accents.
Pappardelle, the broader cousin of fettucine, is named after the Italian verb ‘to gobble up’; the generous portions mean there is plenty to gobble on the plate. The flat strips of dough are beautifully timed, springy and chewy, but as should be the case, the ragu is the star. Brava is possibly the only place in Singapore that serves a duck ragu, and as they should, they provide just enough of it to coat the pasta, with a little more for luck.
In terms of flavour, though, it’s plenty. Besides the normal, robust notes of meat, mushrooms and vegetable sweetness, there is another component, avian and gamey, which complements the egg-packed pasta. Putting the two together produces an intriguing flavour, almost like coconut. Looking through recipes for ragu d’anatra reveals that many will add some duck offal – gizzards, at least – into the mix, and that’s probably what happened here. If so, it is to be applauded unreservedly.
In comparison the friend’s risotto primavera is a much more reserved beast, the broth of vegetables and mushrooms offering a quieter, less weighty sort of umami that allows the arborio rice to shine through. I’ve never been a fan of risotto – what I consider cooked rice would be way past the Italian ideal – and the plump, rotund rice grains taste almost dusty to me, due to their heavy starch content. That’s just me though; I’m willing to defer to the friend’s judgement, and she does not conceal her glee.
We eat our food without any wine, but the temptation of a little booze is too much for us to resist in the dessert course – many Italian sweets are based around at least a bit of the sauce, after all. Pasta Brava’s desserts don’t seek to fix the Italian staples, which is great, because there’s nothing broken about Italian desserts. The friend’s panna cotta, drizzled with amaretto, tastes just as smooth as it looks, the almond liqueur melding seamlessly with its vanilla.
My zabaglione al marsala is also a delight. Zabaglione (the French call it sabayon) is a sort of Italian take on custard, relying also on egg yolk and sugar but adding marsala wine as well, then whipping the mix into a fine froth hiding some strawberries. In the mouth it feels insubstantial, or at least until the eggs and alcohol kick in, a creamy, vanilla-like aroma spreading easily through the mouth. I suspect the idea of whipping this much air was to make some sugar-craving, possibly alcoholic Italian donna feel a bit better about herself at the dessert table. As for me, seeing as how strawberries in Singapore are almost always woeful, this is a great way to persuade me to eat them.
So my sharp, discerning friend is triumphant, and rightly so, as we stumble out satisfied and with just a little alcohol smoothing the mind. And Pasta Brava is a triumph too, of care and effort and tradition. During weekends, I am told, the upstairs bar boasts yet another surprise – a massive herbal cabinet, of the type found in old school Chinese medicine stores, repurposed to hold their collection of liquors.
Before the meal I might have dismissed it as a gimmick, and perhaps an incongruent one as well. But the place – even with its rather extravagant decor and proud display of awards – just does not feel like it would do gimmicks. What Pasta Brava does do is food that is good and thoroughly Italian, with a good sprinkle of generosity and calm. It goes to show that experience is still a potent thing.
11 Craig Road (map)
Mon – Sat: 11.30am – 2.30pm, 6.30pm – 10.30pm
Closed on Sundays